Guides, Instructors and leaders operating in the UK in avalanche terrain frequently travel in groups, but yet there remains very little research into the ‘Non Technical Skills’ required to mitigate avalanche terrain.
CASM is a proposed Human Factors group tool which is based on Crew Resource Management (CRM) training from the aviation sector, an inevitably well-researched safety critical industry. In addition, established research into avalanche incidents and the applied psychology of Human Factors in safety critical industries has also formed the basis of CASM.
CASM stands for Communication, Alter Command Gradient, Situational Awareness and Minimise Disruption. Many guides, instructors and leaders will already carry out some of the practices that these headings aim to capture. There is no intention to negate those behaviours or propose CASM as a single option, it is a Human Factors group tool that can be used alongside others, or in conjunction with decision making frameworks such as Be Avalanche Aware (BAA).
It is hoped that CASM can be used alongside other established technical skills to reduce the risk of unintended “heuristic traps” or group affects. The ultimate aim being the safe conduct of a mountaineering or skiing day.
CASM v3.0 – Video
Communication is arguably the non-technical skill from which all the other headings flow, in fact it is an essential element of all the others listed. Communication is regarded as critical for groups to perform effectively in winter snow sports (Trempler 2008, Zweifel 2014) and in aviation (CAA 2016). The ultimate aim here is to establish and maintain lines of communication between members of the group, and also between the leader and the group and vice versa. Discussion of the avalanche hazard is useful, along with the mantra of “saying what you see”.
Communication should be CLEAR – Contextual, Logically structured, Essential, Ambiguity-free and Resonating (Zweifel 2014). In pressured situations structured communication may be useful such as SBAR and/or NITS brief (Hearns 2019 and Jackson 2021). SBAR – Situation, Background, Assessment, Recommendations.
As a leader communicating using a logical structure demonstrates the legitimacy of authority due to competence. i.e. you have thought about your work and presented it in a rational and organised manner. The use of technical language of mountaineering/skiing is useful to establish credibility and trust (Ginnet 2019).
Alter Command Gradient
The aim here is to flatten any hierarchy between the leader and the group. Although leaders will have established legitimate authority having been engaged to carry out their role, they need to balance the tasks as a group. In affect a leader is building a relationship by saying that although they have overall responsibility for the enterprise but members of the group can take on some of that responsibility as well. This is particularly important to create a situation where the leader is not relied on entirely without question, especially if they have made an error.
A frequent briefing for off piste skiing in avalanche terrain is a good example:
“Any avalanche observations or snow conditions that you think might help out, I would really appreciate having my attention drawn to it. I will be keeping a good lookout as well, but there is always the potential for me to miss things”.
This simple statement is an example of disavowing perfection, by sharing a personal shortcoming e.g. everybody can be looking in the wrong direction, you demonstrate that you are not only human but can deal with you own vulnerabilities (Ginnet 2019, McKenna 2019).
Nobody feels comfortable in a group where the leader is always right. With a flatter hierarchy you empower people to speak up if they are uncomfortable or concerned.
Situational Awareness is a broad concept which simply means having an idea of what is going on, but also being able to project into the future and anticipate what may happen next. A common term in aviation, it is a broad catch all. For us in the mountains we can strive to achieve a shared mental model for the day, and anticipate what may lie over the horizon. Start by having a plan (and contingencies).
Watch for the cues of loss of Situational Awareness (CAA 2016): Ambiguity, fixation, confusion, not prioritising the task, “being head down”, and being unable to resolve discrepancies.
Manage the factors which reduce awareness (Zacharias 2019) such as wellness, fatigue and distraction.
Focus on tasks that enhance safety. The perception of danger requires focus and attention. Chatting, texting and checking social media at the wrong time can detract from the environment and decision making.
The term “sterile cockpit” is used to describe any period of time when crews or groups should not be disturbed except for matters critical to the safety. Additionally, leaders should focus on their essential operational activities (Pollitt 2021).
At key places during your day you may request not to be disturbed by anybody while decision making, and it is a two-way street, don’t disturb others. As such you might plan to call for a sterile cockpit at certain points in the day, or alternatively foster all group members to request it if they are stretched or distracted (Hearns 2019).
Be Avalanche Aware, Snow and Avalanche Foundation for Scotland / Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
Jackson D, 2021, [Personal communication], Mountain CRM, Case Study: Take-Off with contamination on the wings prevented by cabin crew.
Jarvis (Ed), 2016, CAP737: Flight crew human factors handbook, Civil Aviation Authority
Ginnet 2019, Crews as Groups: Their Formation and Leadership. Crew Resource Management, Elsevier Inc.
Hearns S, 2019, Peak Performance Under Pressure: Lessons from a Helicopter Rescue Doctor. Class Professional Publishing.
McKenna L, 2019, [Personal communication] Mountain Manners, Not Mountain Madness. Proceedings of the Snow and Avalanche Foundation for Scotland conference, Inverness.
Statham G, 2021, Thinking in Risk: Avalanche Education, Powder Cloud. https://thepowdercloud.com/learn/avalanche-education/thinking-in-risk/
Trempler B, 2008, Staying alive in avalanche terrain. 2 edition, Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers
Zacharias C, 2019, The Power of Noticing: Avalanche Education, Powder Cloud. https://thepowdercloud.com/learn/avalanche-education/the-power-of-noticing-avalanche-warning-signs/
Zweifel 2014, SOCIAL – A group check tool. Proceedings of the International Snow Science Workshop, Banff.